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Female Founders: Catherine Berardi of ‘Prime Chief of Staff’ On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

You’re going to need a lot of mental fortitude. Your identity can easily get wrapped up in the business — it’s your “baby,” after all — so it’s easy to take to heart other people’s doubts or criticisms. I had to constantly weather my own doubts about whether this was something I should be doing or not. I had to lean into my passion and my experience, and trust myself.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Catherine Berardi.

Catherine Berardi, Founder and CEO of Prime Chief of Staff, is passionate about creating support ecosystems that allow leaders and organizations to be the best versions of themselves. Founded in 2014, Prime Chief of Staff specializes in placing, onboarding, developing, and coaching high-performing Chiefs of Staff for private sector and nonprofit organizations. Prior to launching Prime, Catherine served as Chief of Staff to the President (now co-CEO) of Ariel Investments, where she developed her paradigm for establishing “right hand” support and advisory across a variety of business functions, including strategic planning, sales and marketing, human resources, community initiatives, and special projects.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I always say my story has been more about climbing a jungle gym than a career ladder! I went to college to study saxophone and was planning on being a musician. I share that because there are many people like me who are good at one thing and initially think that’s what they have to do for their career. But I knew I was business-minded so I decided to try different corporate roles, from human resources to operations to marketing. I discovered I didn’t want to pick any one of those functions — instead, I wanted to navigate across them.

When the opportunity to become a chief of staff came, I knew this role was something that I could really embrace because of the breadth of my interests. So a huge reason for wanting to start Prime Chief of Staff was recognizing that there are a lot of people like me, who can play an important role in an organization and succeed, despite — or because — they don’t want to specialize in one area.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

When I was just starting Prime Chief of Staff, I went to talk to a very big VC person. He was a real naysayer when it came to my start-up. He insisted that I was way too focused on one role, that politicians might have chiefs of staff but that businesses didn’t work like that. He said, “I could never see myself having a chief of staff.” But guess what, a couple of years ago, he hired a chief of staff. I share that story to illustrate how important it is to have persistence and to believe in yourself. I had to believe in my idea even when people said no.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I remember one incident that was both funny and definitely taught me an important lesson. I had a standard contract that my lawyer had put together. I read it and thought, gosh, this is too much legalese; I don’t think we need all of this. So I chopped it by at least half. Then I sent it to one of my early prospects, who said, “You know, Catherine, you’re missing a lot of important language that should be in your contracts. Do you have a lawyer?” That was a good reminder that even when I call the shots, I don’t know everything and I need to rely on others’ expertise.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

That would definitely be Mellody Hobson. Mellody is the co-CEO of Ariel Investments and the chairwoman of Starbucks Corporation, making her the only Black woman to lead the board of directors for an S&P 500 company. I served as her chief of staff and I learned so much from her. Beyond anything else, what I learned from Mellody as a Black woman in finance was how to bring your authentic self to the table, even in an environment that doesn’t necessarily support you or understand you. Mellody was always unapologetic about who she was and I try to live my life as a person and professional the same way.

Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

I’d say it’s representation and investment. It’s not that women don’t have ideas or aren’t willing to go out on their own. But we can see who gets the funding, who gets the spotlight and it’s typically white men. Would you want to take a big risk without seeing others like you succeed?

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

We need to build a better environment for women to be successful as business owners, and in order to do that, we have to invest in more women-owned and women-led businesses. We need to provide more resources to women and underrepresented professionals to start their own businesses. We also have to spotlight more of these businesses and ensure they are represented in the public eye. That kind of representation will help propel more women into starting their own business as well.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

The question I’d ask is, what are we missing by not having diverse founders creating new businesses, whether that’s women or people of color or just people from different backgrounds? I can’t help but think of all the insights and opportunities we lose when only one group gets the attention, especially when businesses increasingly have to meet the needs of a diverse market.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

People typically think that it’s the starting that’s the hard part of being a founder. I disagree. I think it’s easy to start anything, but it’s the continuous operation of a business that’s difficult. You’ve got to keep it going, day after day, year after year. So I think we need to talk more about how important it is to sustain a business. To do this, it’s essential to recognize what you don’t know. That’s another myth as well — that because you’ve started something and you have the title of CEO next to your name, you somehow have all the answers. Absolutely not true. In order to start and sustain your business, you have to understand what you know and what you don’t know, and then surround yourself with people who can not only support you, but make sure you’re making sound decisions.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

I think there are certain characteristics that make people better suited for founding a business. Wanting to be a builder, to start something from scratch, is important. So is being willing to deal with an incredible amount of ambiguity. I remember sharing my initial business plan with a good friend, who told me, “Just know that what you have on paper today is not the business you’re going to have tomorrow. Your business will be informed and changed by the market, so if you go into it thinking you’re going to be building this business exactly as outlined, it’s not going to work.” Being adaptable is hugely important!

Here’s the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

You’re going to need a lot of mental fortitude. Your identity can easily get wrapped up in the business — it’s your “baby,” after all — so it’s easy to take to heart other people’s doubts or criticisms. I had to constantly weather my own doubts about whether this was something I should be doing or not. I had to lean into my passion and my experience, and trust myself.

You’ve got to listen. When I was in middle school, I won a “Most Respectful” award. The winners attended a workshop on listening. I thought that was strange at first but I grew to completely understand it. Listening is such an underrated communication skill. So even while you need to trust yourself, you’ve also got to listen to what people are telling you, as well as what the market is telling you. Think of listening as a sign of respect — this really changed my perspective on it.

You can’t be a team of one. You need a team of people who share your vision and passion, and who are better than you in certain areas to help you succeed. I don’t think when I started I understood how valuable the team was. I thought I could succeed because there was a market for my idea and I knew what I’m doing. But if you can’t get other people behind you and your mission, it’s never going to be successful.

Be bold. I have another story about making mistakes. My first band teacher (another close mentor of mine) always told our ensemble, “If you’re going to play on a rest, make it loud.” I love this philosophy in music and in life. If you’re going to make a mistake, make it confidently. Being fearful of mistakes holds back so many people — I see it all of the time. We build entire cultures around fearing mistakes. Ask yourself, when was the last time I made a big mistake? If it wasn’t recently, contemplate why and see where taking more risks can actually help you grow.

Get out of other people’s way. There are so many times I’ve caught myself swooping in to fix a problem rather than empowering others to identify and solve problems on their own. This habit can create the wrong culture and it’s simply unsustainable. You can’t do it all and no one expects you to. Select the right people, then trust and rely on them by getting out of the way.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Once I recognized the benefits and the impact of the chief of staff role, I wanted more people to experience it. I firmly believe that by having better support, people can truly become better, more effective leaders. Something as simple as adding a chief of staff can have an incredible impact on an organization, from helping to influence a leader to helping to create a more values-aligned environment for a team. What and how you operate as a leader matter, and a chief of staff holds you accountable to doing that successfully.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

My mission with Prime is to reshape leadership by elevating different kinds of leaders. I believe that supporting those leaders and celebrating the different perspectives they offer will do a tremendous amount of good for our society. Society tends to over-index the loudest voices, but positions like the chief of staff serve to model a different type of leadership. It may be a quieter leadership, but it’s one that is incredibly impactful for an organization. When we elevate this work, we’re elevating a different vision of what leaders look like, one that’s still very much underrecognized because they’re not front and center.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in business, VC funding, sports, and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Serena Williams! Having already created an unparalleled tennis career, she is only getting started. Now she is diving into investing and the start-up space, which I think is amazing. Working for a pioneering black woman was a life changing experience for me. I think the opportunity to work with someone like Serena would be invaluable. If she doesn’t yet have a chief of staff, I’d love to help her find one.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.

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